Stranger in a Strange Land.
The aesthetics professor does not ash her cigarette. I watch as she moves her hands wildly, like all argentines, and the ash never falls. The other three students in the class listen intently, but I don’t understand the speed or the accent yet, so I watch the cigarette and the growing ash. In the middle of a sentence, she is interrupted by a young man. “Excuse me,” he says, “don’t forget to break early for the march.” Class resumes with no mention of whether or not we will be excused early for the anniversary of the Noche de Los Lapices. A night when eight argentine middle school students were arrested for demanding lower bus fares for all students. All were tortured and seven were killed. The eighth is now a middle aged lawyer.
The professor continues to lecture. Suddenly she turns her attention to me. “The Nanny. The TV show, you know the TV show? Do women like that really exist in America?” To my relief, she flicks her thumb on the cigarette, sending two inches of burned tobacco to the classroom floor. She lights another cigarette , returns her attention to the other students, and resumes the lecture that I don’t understand.
When the class ends, the other students circle me in the hallway. “Why would you take this class? This is an awful class. You should take something easy.” They pull me to the posted class schedule for the National University of La Plata. “You see. At the same time, you can take drawing or painting or printmaking.” “Yes,” another chimes in, “these classes are all beginner classes and much better than aesthetics.” “Do yourself a favor and withdraw from this class.”
Okay, I agree, I can’t handle this lecture. The only time the professor addressed me was to discuss a nasal voiced domestic employee from Queens. Even then, she didn’t wait for an answer. I leave the disintegrating building that houses the different arts departments and begin to walk the half mile back to the student centre.
The entire walk is along Calle Siete. All the streets are numbered in La Plata and Calle Siete is one of the most important fairways on the north side of La Plata. The protest has started and is centered on Calle Siete between Calles 51 and 53 at Plaza San Martin. Some of the Mother of the Plaza del Mayo are present. Unions. Communists. Medicos. Artists. Mothers. Socialists. Everyone is present. I realize that Calle Siete is empty.
The busy street is empty and the corners are marked by small piles of smoldering tires. Drums band and echo between the seven story buildings. I look around. I realize that I am along. I realize how weak my Spanish skills are. I realize that my hair is bleach blond and nobody is blond in argentina. I realize that I am tall. I realize that I am an American. I am not safe and I am still a quarter of a mile from the student centre.
With each step, I am more frightened. My heart races. The policia, once accused of torture, murder, and baby stealing, walk by in formation. The policia wear riot gear and carry very large black guns. The policia put up 15 feet fences in front of government buildings and face off with the college students over the history of the argentine government.
The lecture. Guns. Drums. Accent. Vocabulary. Bus system. Street names. Guns. Drums. Smells. Fires. Blond. American. Drums. Guns. Chants. Aesthetics. Drawing. Painting. Drums. Rubber. Guns. Marching. Lost.
I am twisted up inside and crying by the time I arrive at the ex-Jockey Club on Calle 58. I climb three flights of stairs. I close the door behind me and am the only student in the centre. Marcelo and Irina are there and I try to explain that I need to change classes, that the aesthetics class is too hard. I can’t find the words to explain that my lungs are knotted around my stomach and my spleen is dancing with my heart. I can’t explain that I have lost control of everything in Argentina and that I just want to go home.
Instead, I sit sobbing and let Marcelo make me a cup of tea and I let Irina say, “calmate, calmate.” We all agree, that tomorrow Marcelo will introduce me to a practical arts professor and I will join beginning printmaking.
I wash my face with cold water and gather my things. I walk the long way to my apartment. Avoiding Plaza San Martin and the police headquarters. I make a stop at a small pharmacy and my a bottle of hair dye. If nothing else, at least tomorrow I won’t be blond.